A Passion to Help: Scores of people have benefited because Gretchen A. Willison can’t say “no.”

July 16, 2015

Whenever Gretchen A. Willison is asked by good people to help find the resources they need to do good work, she finds it hard to say “no.” And when she takes on a cause, most people find it hard to tell her “no.” She’s a wildly successful fundraiser, according to her many friends and colleagues.

“The people of Saint John’s believe they are a community hospital serving the people of this community. They are who they say they are." – Gretchen A. Willison

But when friend Richard M. Ferry asked her more than a decade ago to join him on the board of trustees of the Saint John’s Health Center Foundation, she said “no” even though she wanted to say “yes.” At the time, she was intensely focused on completing an eight-year campaign to raise $200 million for a new cathedral in Los Angeles. The year after the cathedral opened in 2002, Gretchen joined the Foundation’s board.

“A hospital is so profoundly integral to what’s important to a community,” says Gretchen, a trustee since 2003. “Saint John’s serves everybody. It serves you no matter your ethnicity, your economic standing or your age. It is there for everyone. The people of Saint John’s believe they are a community hospital serving the people of this community. They are who they say they are.”

Her style is genuine as well. She speaks with conviction about what bothers her, such as the politicians—on both sides of the aisle—in Washington, D.C. She talks with equal passion about the things that hearten her: her children, grandchildren and her husband, Bruce. She wipes away tears when mentioning her family.

Her faith also heartens her. The rich reds and golds of religious artwork covering the walls in her home are testament to religion’s centrality in her life. “I love being a Catholic. The church tells you God loves every one of us every day, every part of us, inside and outside.”

Gretchen also loves Los Angeles, where she was born, though over the years she has moved from La Cañada to Mexico City to Portland, Oregon, and back to Pasadena, following Bruce’s career as a banking executive. When Bruce, formerly president of First Interstate Bank and Home Savings and Loan, was named dean of the Anderson School of Management at UCLA, the couple moved to the Westside.

Since then, they’ve made a huge impact on their local community. Retired now, Gretchen and Bruce can often be found working together on philanthropic efforts. They have many separate interests, too.

She’s helping the Carmelite Sisters raise $22 million to rebuild their Duarte facility for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. “These women are saints, I’m telling you,” she says, adding her signature phrase: “How do you say ‘no’?”

Meanwhile Bruce is focused on inner-city schools as voluntary chair of the Catholic Schools Consortium and sits on a half-dozen corporate and community boards. Indeed their lives are so tightly scheduled that they make it a point to sit down once a week to match up their calendars. And Gretchen admits to being so busy that she rarely sits down, unless it’s at her computer, until she goes to bed each night.

Family is a priority, however. Dozens of silver-framed photos of the family that now totals 22 members have a showplace on a round table in her living room, which opens onto a sweeping panorama of Westwood and the UCLA campus. In addition to six children and their spouses, Gretchen and Bruce have eight grandchildren, with the ninth expected in September.

Although spread across the country, the family gets together regularly. They spent Christmas in the family’s log cabin in central Oregon. In the past few months, Gretchen has visited one daughter’s children in the California desert, helped a son and daughter-in-law finish decorating the house they built in Colorado and attended a grandson’s high-school graduation in Virginia.

Last year Gretchen retired from what she insists was her last paid fundraising effort: helping Monsignor Lloyd Torgerson raise $33 million for improvements at St. Monica Catholic Community. Her plan now is to focus on family and increasing her involvement with Saint John’s.

Over the years, Gretchen has made many contributions to the Health Center. Together with two other trustees, she chaired The New Century Circle that helped rebuild the hospital through inpatient room naming opportunities.

Last year she mentored staff working on the annual giving program. She currently sits on the Chautauqua Committee, responsible for the Foundation’s annual retreat where trustees and donors gather with physicians, researchers and administrators for a weekend of education and camaraderie.

Trustee emeritus William S. Mortensen knew of Gretchen’s strong volunteerism on behalf of St. Monica Catholic Community and was eager to sponsor her for the Foundation board. “She has an amazing ability to connect people,” he explains.

He continues, “Gretchen is a skilled fundraiser. She’s highly organized and a great planner and motivator of people. But more important, she is one of the most likeable people I know—fun and bright on a number of subjects. She’s been a fantastic addition to the Foundation board. The excitement Gretchen brings to everything she does is contagious.”

Gretchen isn’t sure what’s next for her at Saint John’s, but she’s open to saying “yes” to what the Foundation needs her to do. “I want to be present to the needs of this organization,” she says. “I’m not done here.”

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